Grizzlies eager to speed up rebuilding with West’s 8th seed

The young Memphis Grizzlies want to finish what they started, and that’s accelerating the rebuilding process by earning the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017.

The NBA started its hiatus March 11 with Memphis close to getting three key players back in the lineup. The Grizzlies had won four of their last six sitting in the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot with a 3 1/2-game lead. Now they face eight seeding games trying to hold onto the No. 8 seed led by likely rookie of the year Ja Morant.

Center Jonas Valančiūnas, one of the few veterans on this roster, says this is a young and humble team that knows what it wants.

“We want to win,” Valančiūnas said. “We want to be good. We want to be recognized on the court. … We’ve got all the right tools. It’s on us now.”

The Grizzlies start the seeding games July 31 against Portland in Orlando. They lead the Trail Blazers, New Orleans with Zion Williamson and Sacramento by 3 1/2 games and are up by four over San Antonio. They’ll start warming up Friday against Philadelphia in the first of three scrimmages.

Memphis went 7-7 against the five teams trailing in the standings. The Grizzlies will need at least a four-game lead over the ninth-place team in either conference to avoid a best-of-two play-in series for the West’s final spot. The eighth seed likely faces a first-round matchup with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

What to look for out of the Grizzlies:

DEPTH UPDATE

The Grizzlies thought they would have the versatile Justise Winslow available. They acquired Winslow on Feb. 6 in a trade that sent Andre Iguodala, who never reported to the Grizzlies, to Miami. A back issue delayed Winslow’s debut with Memphis. The NBA stopped play with Winslow finally ready to play the next game in Portland.

His teammates couldn’t wait to finally have him with them in games. But Winslow hurt his hip in a scrimmage July 20 and will miss the rest of this season. The Grizzlies expect Winslow to make a full recovery.

WHERE WE WERE

When the NBA stopped play in mid-March, the Grizzlies had won four of their last six despite being banged up. Jaren Jackson Jr. was out with an injured left knee, and rookie Brandon Clarke had missed eight games with an injured right quadriceps muscle. Grayson Allen hadn’t played since Jan. 24 because of an injured hip.

Now everyone is healthy and practicing in Orlando.

JA TIME

If the Grizzlies can clinch a playoff berth out of the seeding games, then Morant has a chance to join some very exclusive company. He could become only the third rookie to lead a playoff team in both points and assists, joining Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor. Morant goes into the seeding games averaging a team-high 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game.

Morant also could join Jordan, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only rookie guards in NBA history to average at least 17 points and shoot at least 47% from the floor. Morant currently is shooting 49.1%.

ROOKIE COACH

Taylor Jenkins started off his tenure with the Grizzlies by leading them to the Summer League title last July, and his rookie season is about to resume. The first-time NBA head coach used the hiatus to study himself and asked his assistants and even the Grizzlies for feedback on how he could be better or different.

“I know I’m far from being a perfect coach, but I want to always, you know, engage people are close to me to really help me do that, honestly,” Jenkins said.

STAT WATCH

The Grizzlies had been one win away from matching their victory total for all of last season at 33. … They rank second in the NBA averaging 27 assists a game. … Memphis leads the league scoring points in the paint averaging 56.3 points per game, having scored at least 60 points in 25 games.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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